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|A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Pharmacopeia: The Most Lamentable Tragedy of William Payne, M.D.
By Jana Monji
This story is theoretically about pain and Kofman isn't above a pun. Yet the play actually begins with a young boy (Deance Wyatt) singing along to a recording of Neil Young's "Old Man." Dressed in a local basketball team's uniform, the boy mingles with a chorus of three women (Zoe Canner, Sarah Connine, Mandi Moss) dressed in blue hospital gowns who roll their IV bag holders to simple choreography. At the end, we know who the old man is, but the sensitivity of this scene is crushed by the slapstick that follows.
We meet the egotistical Payne (Joseph Hulser). Clad in black shoes, pants, shirt and tie, he drapes a white lab coat over his shoulders. He tells us he obsessed with cancer, something that exists as an insult, "a personal affront" to his genius. Hulser seems to be channeling Groucho Marx on a faulty connection.
Payne is neither a tragically flawed hero nor a delightfully hissable villain but a man barely controlling his libido who offers a false cure (his urine) to desperate patients. He does seek therapy, though it's hard to discern for what reason.
Payne asks his sexy nurse/receptionist (Mira Lew) to satisfy his sexual needs by pretending to be his deceased, demanding shrew of a wife who died of cancer. When patients don't have money, he's willing to get more personal compensation (fellatio). Everything seems horrifically insensitive to the plight of the terminally ill.
Efren Delgadillo's set design--three plastic walls that serve as screens for video and still pictures-- establishes a sterile environment that parallels the play's emotional dilemma. Without a hero to root for or a victim to empathize, there is no emotional center. We don't know enough about the young boy, Yuri, to feel his tragedy as anything but the generic dying young and leaving a beautiful corpse. As a result, his adopted mother's (Jessica Ires Morris) desperation and her Eastern European accent and the cross-racial adoption (Wyatt is African American) seem like unnecessary plot devices.
A squeamish discomfort also arises from wondering just how Kofman intends us to regard Dr. Payne? A misunderstood, tragic genius? A madman blind to his own limitations leaving too many victims? When a senator (Matthew Henerson) comes for treatment and Payne's fortune looks up, the play almost seems like a black comedy. Yet an ironic twist destroys that possibility. The doctor himself becomes a cancer patient. Is this poetic justice? The tone returns to that sweetly sensitive note that opened the play.
When the play suddenly shifts into a campy ghoulish horror mode with Kofman giving Payne a karmic retribution, you can finally be sure where the playwright's sympathies lie. However, by then it's too late.
If director Wilder had orchestrated a thematic tone that alone could have better sustained this piece. As it is, this production is neither good high camp nor low bawdy humor although it aspires to both and schizophrenia best describes the compilation of scenes that never coalesce into a play.
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The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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